Among journalists, lawyers and epidemiologists there exists a subspecies known as "cluster busters," practitioners of each trade who appear inexorably at the first sign of a cluster, the slightest rise above normal incidence of a disease or birth defect. The challenge of cluster busting sounds deceptively simple: First prove that there is a cluster (or epidemic), then determine what caused it. The epidemiologist's task is to prove the first; the lawyer, the second, and the journalist, both.
"A Civil Action" is about one of the most challenging conundrums known to any living cluster buster in law, medicine or journalism. And we've all been waiting for a good read on the subject. But this account of the now famous Woburn cluster isn't written the way most journalists, myself included, would have written it. As a result it is both readable and riveting.
The cluster in question is childhood leukemia, which struck the grimy industrial town of Woburn, Mass., in alarming numbers during the 1970s. The suspected etiology of this bleak epidemic began at two tap wells drilled by the city into aquifers allegedly contaminated by the covert industrial dumping of trichlorethylene (TCE) and other hideous chemicals during the years before the Environmental Protection Agency existed and toxic dumping was virtually unregulated. The battleground is the district federal court in Boston.
In 1972, Anne Anderson, the mother of a sick child, noticed that there seemed to be an unusual number of very sick children in her neighborhood. Like her son Jimmy, most of them had some form of leukemia. Anderson's door-to-door barefoot epidemiology stimulated official curiosity. The EPA studied the ground water in her neighborhood and found high levels of TCE, which they traced back to wells G and H, which were promptly closed. Enter a flamboyant lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann, for whom the Woburn case became an obsession leading to penury.
Rather than focusing, as a less imaginative reporter might, on the horrible plight of the leukemic children and their parents, on the duplicitous corporations--W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods--that allegedly poisoned them, or, as I might have, on the spellbinding forensic quest for epidemiological verification, Jonathan Harr follows the lawyers who litigate vigorously nine years for and against Beatrice and Grace. Loving lawyers as we do, this was a risky gambit for a first-time book author, but it works brilliantly.
Trial coverage is one of the least enviable assignments for a reporter. Long hours are spent in the courtrooms watching lawyers, magistrates and judges haggle over the inanities and minutiae of law. Interminable briefs, ponderous scientific studies with endless footnotes, and thousands of pages of deposition and interrogatory must be read. Long waits create boredom and uncertainty. And when the wait is over, days of trial testimony can pass without a single quotable remark. Harr endures this unenviable ordeal for eight years, during which he becomes so familiar with Schlichtmann and his reluctant partner Kevin Conway; with the brilliant but frumpy Jerome Facher, attorney for Beatrice; with the calculating and aggressive William Cheesman representing Grace, and with the exacting and at times downright mean Judge Walter Jay Skinner that they seem like members of his family.
The book becomes almost cinematic, as Harr captures detail, color and anecdote, sketching them in clear and unself-conscious prose. There are intriguing threads that hold the narrative together, such as Schlichtmann's neurotic accumulation of tailored business suits, which, even in the face of bankruptcy, he protects as if they were his living children. (The one account that his harrowed bean-counter is instructed to keep current throughout the trial--as computer lessors, bankers and bill collectors line up at the law firm's door--is Schlichtmann's dry cleaner.) Although a reader might ask for two or more fewer depositions, the text moves rapidly and smoothly, and suspense is kept at a seductive level. Even minor characters--the bereaved parents of dying children, the opportunistic expert witnesses and the squirming employees of Grace and Beatrice--come alive on every page. (No wonder a seven-figure movie deal has been signed.)
But in the end it is Schlichtmann who is remembered, a sad quixotic figure so obsessed with Woburn he goes days without eating, nights without sleeping, months without sex, and leaves everything else in his life and law firm to rot and deteriorate (except his suits). Harr paints a tragic savant whose driving ambition to "get rich by doing good" becomes his nemesis. This protagonist is hard to love but impossible to dislike, a blend of 1960s idealism and 1980s greed, the best and worst in all of us.